To solve the housing crisis, we need a National Housing Fund

Some houses, of exactly the sort that you will never own. Image: Getty.

Welcome to the housing crisis, part 4526. So far this month, we have learnt that planning permission has been granted for 320,000 homes but they have not been built; the housing market is slowing down; and people are spending more of their incomes on housing than ever before. But even with the scale of the problem, and a hamstrung government, things don’t have to be this way.

Housing is a significant challenge for our cities, a major solution to which is getting more homes built. It’s not surprising that all of the newly elected metro mayors are prioritising it – from Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, who wants to build a new small town to meet local housing demand, to James Palmer in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, who put affordable housing at the centre of his manifesto, and Andy Burnham, who is refocusing the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework to tackle the housing crisis. Efforts by the new mayors are welcome – and if central government gives city regions more powers and flexibility, they will be able to make a much bigger contribution to meeting local housing needs.

But all cities exist within a wider national context. Planning permission is being granted but homes are not being built in all parts of the country. Giving local authorities the powers to deal with that is likely to take years, especially when no party has a majority in parliament to drive through new legislation.

The business model of private housebuilders does not vary from city to city: homes will only be built at the rate at which developers think they will be able to sell. Moreover, a market downturn that starts in London is likely to mean fewer homes are built in all parts of the country.

What we urgently need from government is action at the national level to, first, speed up new development: those 320,000 phantom homes would make a real difference around the country if they got built. Second, investment needs to be focused on getting the market working better over the long-term. That means supporting smaller builders so that we have a more diverse marketplace with more people in the business of building.

Third, we need to build the right types of homes. Building more homes for sale won’t help those who will not be able to afford a deposit anyway. Building more homes at reasonable rents will help people more quickly.


That’s where ResPublica’s new report comes in. Working with leading housing associations, we are proposing a National Housing Fund that would invest substantially (£10bn annually for ten years) in new homes for rent: we project at least 40,000 new homes a year could be built. These would be available under family friendly long-term tenancies, at reasonable and predictable rents.

It could buy homes on existing planned but stalled developments to reduce that number of phantom homes; and would support small developers to bring forward plans for more new homes by providing them with certainty of sale. Each year some tenants, enabled to save by paying reasonable rents, would be offered opportunities to buy their homes; proceeds would be reinvested in building replacements.

How can we afford this major new investment? After the 10 years of investment, housing associations would start paying back off the government’s investment.

In the meantime, our research finds that an investment of this kind is not only realistic: it’s highly desirable. The fund itself could be self-sustaining. Rents would more than cover costs of the borrowing and of managing the properties. And there would be significant wider social and economic benefits – 180,000 new jobs and £3.4bn in tax increases and welfare savings per year.

This is all about adding to existing housebuilding and policy initiatives. If cities or local authorities wanted to work with private sector developers, or build homes themselves, the fund would be there to fund it. With all parties in their manifestos committed to investing in new housing, parliamentary arithmetic need not get in the way of delivering this much-needed and overdue investment in housing.

Edward Douglas is policy & projects manager at the think tank Respublica.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.